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School of Psychology at UEL hosts talk by Professor Philip Zimbardo

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Renowned psychologist of the Stanford Prison Experiment speaks to students and staff

The University of East London’s School of Psychology recently welcomed American psychologist Philip Zimbardo, a professor emeritus at Stanford University widely known for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, for an event with students and staff.

Professor Zimbardo previously delivered a talk about the `psychology of evil’ from a situationist perspective to the School of Psychology in 1992. That talk was organised by Professor Mark McDermott, who also arranged Professor Zimbardo’s most recent online visit in June. At the latter event, staff and students watched the 1992 talk, and Professor Zimbardo then joined them for a virtual discussion.

Professor McDermott said it is particularly fitting that the ‘Professor Philip Zimbardo at UEL 1992 Revisited - situational influences on behaviour’ event was hosted by the University of East London at this particular moment in time. 

Professor McDermott recalled how the “very memorable event” in 1992 started by considering the psychological explanations of five days of riots which took place in Los Angeles that year. During those riots, 63 people died, 2383 people were injured, and 12,111 arrests were made. 

“The riots broke out in response to the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in relation to the beating of African-American Rodney King in March of 1991. Parallels with what has been occurring in the USA in recent days in relation to the death of George Floyd are very evident”, Professor McDermott said.

“It was timely to reconsider what Professor Zimbardo had to say in 1992. In his talk, he draws on lessons learned from classic social psychology experiments, including his own Stanford Prison Experiment, his work on deindividuation and on time perspective.” 

Professor Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students were assigned roles as inmates or wardens in a mock jail, was abandoned six days into the experiment after the students took their roles to extremes. He detailed the events of the experiment in his 2007 book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

Professor Zimbardo became a leading authority on the nature of evil, but in recent years he has been exploring what he sees as its opposite, heroism. He has kick-started the fledgling psychological field loosely dubbed ‘hero studies’.

After the screening of the 1992 talk, Professor Zimbardo joined 110 attendees from the University online from his home in San Francisco for 85 minutes of questions and answers. Professor Zimbardo described speaking at the University of East London in 1992 as “the single best talk I’ve ever given.”

In light of recent events in the US, Professor Zimbardo said the police brutality against Rodney King was “a transformative time for America at that period” and that the statements he made in his 1992 talk are still important today.

Professor Zimbardo said, “When we witness police in the USA brutalising citizens, and more often black and minority ethnic people than whites, the tendency is to say there are a few bad apples in the police force. What we’re seeing now in America is that many police departments are bad barrels.

“They’re trained to use those killing and brutalising devices to suppress the people they are capturing. Now it gets extended so that the police become like military forces. You see it in their uniforms now, many of the times their faces are concealed, they are anonymous and deindividuated. They can beat up people and get away with it.”

Professor Zimbardo said that in the case of George Floyd’s death, the police officers were not justified in their reaction to a simple police call about somebody buying a single packet of cigarettes with a counterfeit bill.

“As we’ve seen in all the protests, police are coming in like they are coming to war against an enemy. The good news is there is now an attempt around America, and hopefully in England and other places, to change the nature of the training of police, change what police are legally allowed to do and not allowed to do, and which behaviour of theirs constitutes criminal behaviour.

He said, “We are in a landmark moment in America. As we’ve seen with global support for the message ‘Black Lives Matter’. For me, it’s also humanity matters. In some of the cases we’ve seen, white protestors – including a 73-year-old man knocked to the ground by a policeman – there’s a sense of dominance that police begin to have, especially when they are in a group. It’s them versus you.

Professor Zimbardo said he is “hopeful we will see a change in the nature of policing that will eliminate chokeholds and horrific kinds of things that are appropriate for war, not for policing.”

He thanked Professor Mark McDermott, with whom he has worked for many years, including on the three-part television series ‘The Human Zoo’ broadcast on ITV in 2000, which he called “the peak creative project” of his career.

Professor Amanda Broderick, vice-chancellor and president of University of East London, said, “It was a great honour to have Professor Philip Zimbardo as a guest speaker again. Professor Zimbardo was warmly received by our students and staff as a leader in his field, providing inspiration and direction to the future psychologists studying at the University of East London.”

Professor Aneta Tunariu, dean of the School of Psychology, said, “The School has been shaped by the talent and passion of our academics and students and the strength of our links globally. We applaud Professor McDermott for his longstanding collaboration with Professor Zimbardo and for organising and inspiring yet another timely and memorable event."

Resources and readings on the Stanford Prison Experiment:

McDermott, M.R. (2019). Evaluating the criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Psychology Review, (Nov.), 18-20

McDermott, M.R. (2019). Being innovative and ethical about research - the importance of the Stanford Prison Experiment and the BBC Prison Study. Psychology Review, (Feb.), 23-25

Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & McDermott, M. R. (2015). Studying harm-doing without doing harm: The case of the BBC Prison Study, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and the role conformity model of tyranny. In R. J. Sternberg & S. E. Fiske (Eds.), Ethical challenges in the behavioral and brain sciences: Case studies and commentaries. (pp. 134–139). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

McDermott, M.R. (1993). On cruelty, ethics and experimentation: Profile of Philip G. Zimbardo. The Psychologist, 6(10), 456-459.

Image Caption: (l-r) Professor Phil Zimbardo, Professor Mark McDermott and Professor Christina Maslach in London, 2018.